Guardians of the Galaxy is a superhero team origin story that reminded me of The Avengers and Firefly, not because it is as good as those two, but because they copy and pasted their character design, pacing, tone and desire to be an irreverent, borderline parody of the genre. Guardians has everything that worked in The Avengers, as well as everything that didn't. In fact, this film borrows things from many other sci-fi classics it almost feels like a Sci-Fi montage more than it is an original story.
The film came out about a week later in Australia than it did in America, so I was sadly pre-flooded with reviews from other film critics as well as "GO SEE IT" reactions from my American readers. And it seems that they overwhelmingly liked this movie, calling it as one of the best film this year, so my expectations was somewhat built up. And so I saw it, and came out of the cinema feeling half happy and half disappointed.
Originally this was just going to be a quickie review, but I ended up having quite a lot of thoughts about it. I also can't really explain why Guardians is not all it's hyped up to be without spoilers. So for those who hasn't seen the movie, I will first summarise my recommendation in one sentence: it's definitely worth checking out, but don't think too hard and just enjoy the ride.
Disclaimer: I confess that I haven't read any of the 2008 comic books related to Guardians. I will be reviewing this film using only the other Marvel movie as a baseline. I won't care if any of the things I point out as a plot hole is actually explained in the comic books. Most people wouldn't have had read the comics either and so that's how I chose to experience this film. I may also be over-analysing certain things but that's how I enjoy certain movies, so sue me!
The opening scene of this film really bothered me, especially because after I watched the rest of it. We open with a flashback seeing a kid visiting his mother who is dying of cancer. After he refused her request to hold her hand, she passes away in front of him, and not only is he kicked out of the room, he runs out of the hospital devastated. And as he curls up on the lawns crying away a very dark evening, he is suddenly and inexplicably abducted by space pirates...wow. That is totally not what I expected to see based on the trailer.
Then as the opening credits roll, we are greeted with a dancing, grooving ancient-relic-hunting self-absorbed ass who is the grown up version of Peter Quill, or Star Lord as he fancies to call himself. Throughout the rest of the film we don't really get a glimpse into how those events of his childhood actually affected him emotionally (other than the nostalgia aspect) and drove him to do what he does now.
Okay that's not quite true. We get one scene where Gamora stumbles on the gift-wrapped present from his mum, she briefly shows up as a vision in the climax, and during the epilogue he reads her message, and we learn where he got his 'Star Lord' nickname from. That's nice. But what I draw from this is that his mum's death did not scar him, but is just a bittersweet memory he carries with him to remind himself of his humanity, and some regret for not holding his mother's hands before she passed away. So why open your movie with such drama if you don't plan to address it? Saving it for the sequel?
You might be wondering why am I harping on something so tiny? Because this is adult stuff! It is not something your kids would expect to be dealing with or understanding in a film with a talking raccoon and a talking tree. This opening scene really doesn't mesh well with the rest of the film is all.
Perhaps this is the first example of how fractured and unfocused the film is tone-wise. It wants to be irreverent and funny, but arbitrarily throws some brief but serious scenes at us expecting us to take them seriously, and then following that it's back to punchy bantering again. We get glimpses of maturity but then drawn out scenes of childish antics. It feels like a mess if you were actually trying to be invested with what's going on.
The Avengers didn't have this problem, because all the funny dialogues and scenes are coincidental rather than deliberate. The characters themselves are fully immersed in their world and take their conflicts seriously, it's only because of clever development that leads to funny scenes in passing, but it's not the only source of our enjoyment. Because of this, I would say that Guardians fails at being a film fully for children nor a film fully for adults.
While Joss Whedon's Firefly was not the first to introduce the 'irreverence', 'rag-tag team' type of Space/Sci-Fi story, it certainly became the modern benchmark in not only how it's done, but also why. Marvel truly love their Whedon-ism, and have taken it upon themselves to replicate the fun and heart in humanising comic book characters. But perhaps this time it worked against them on some level.
Guardians isn't just irreverent, it is downright mocking its own mythology at times. I've ranted about this issue in Thor 2, and I think this film is a little bit better in terms of self-awareness; they know what they are doing, and they do it reasonably well. But I believe there is value in not jestering around everything mystic, cosmic, and historic, because the solution to every great threat is not prancing around in front of it hoping to dumb them down to your own level and beating it with experience. I mean if you want to go that far, you might as well prefix your film title with Monty Python.
The other issue with irreverence is that the Guardians themselves, while they do something one could consider noble at the very end, they did not shy from the fact that they are ready to kill people and break the law to get the job done. They show compassion selectively and this does bother me. It makes the characters more realistic but also undermines the director's efforts to convince an audience like myself that they are 'heroes', at least by the end of this movie.
There is one scene towards the ends where Groot skewers through half a dozen of Ronan's henchmen and throws their dead corpses around to paint the corridor with their invisible blood and bodily fluids, then turns towards Star Lord and Drax wearing a puppy dog smile as if to seek approval; "did Groot do a good job?" The fact that most of the audience laughed at this means that they have also been hypnotised to overlook the implications and the seriousness of taking an enemy's life. But that is what Hollywood likes to teach: zero sum diplomacy, a genocide of henchmen, leading to a "mono e mono" climax between the main protagonist and the one-dimensional villain. The henchmen are never going to change sides, so we might as well kill them all indiscriminately for comedic effect, not consider their possible tragedy and the families they are probably trying to protect in working for Ronan/Thanos.
This is something Firefly doesn't do. The reason I bring up Firefly again is because there is quite a bit of the style and script in this film which pays homage to the TV show, and while they definitely got the essence of it, they didn't preach the same message. Firefly is told from the 'bad guys' perspective, where the big government is revealed to be not evil, but fundamentally flawed, and we see that there are criminals on both sides, but also glimpses of goodness in almost all of them. The Guardians honestly don't know much about the Nova Corps, and neither do the audience.
So for all we know Ronan's desire to wipe out the planet Xandar might be more justified than the film portrays it to be. Maybe Nova Corps has done something despicable and has covered it up from the general public. Like Rocket and Groot, Ronan may have also been the result of unethical research and experiments done by Nova Corps. But we don't get to hear much of his side of the story because all we see is the one-dimensional villain he became, simply wanting to wipe out everyone and everything; there is no room (or time) for sympathy.
Because of the aforementioned issue, I am divided about what characters I like in this film. So I'll go through them one by one:
Aside from the guilt over dead mother aspect, I enjoy every other aspect of this character. He is cunning, he is tactful, he is surprisingly diplomatic, and he has real emotions and a compelling philosophy. I'm still not clear on what to make of his relationship with the Yondu and his Space Pirates, but I guess that's the point of pirates. They are always one broken deal away from turning their backs on each other. Loyalty is not part of their coda, and I'm okay with that.
Zoe Saldana reprises her role as a spicy hot alien who is your token strong independent woman to break the sausage-fest of the male-dominated superhero club. Like Andy Serkis who plays every CGI creature in modern cinema (seriously, look up what he's done), she has been stuck in the Space/Sci-Fi world all because of her being a Trekkie in The Terminal.
Anyway, I don't think there's any issues with this character, except her back story isn't very well fleshed out, so her character motivation is a bit murky to me. I don't understand why she wants to live her life with enemies, when it doesn't look like there's anyone stopping her from leaving to begin with. Other than that she's your typical "strong woman who closed her heart but eventually warms up to the main protagonist's charm and sincerity", so nothing special, I'm indifferent to this character.
This guy is enjoyably insane. I think of all the Guardians, this guy is the most wreckless and tactless, but he did make the story a lot more interesting. He only has one thing he cares about, and that's revenge! He starts off being a bit one-note, but I think his story arc of learning to think before acting, as well as forgiving Gamora is somewhat touching. Though again, due to too many characters needing screen time, his transition from wanting to kill Gamora to defending her as a friend was a bit hasty.
Again, I kind of felt like this character deserved a bit more backstory time. Every member of The Guardians has an episode of being removed from their natural habitat and modified/experimented on into the criminals they are today. Unfortunately, like Drax and Gamora, his backstory is only briefly touched on in a couple of scenes and kept largely in mystery. It might be in the sequel but honestly I would have preferred it if they fitted it in to this one.
Aside from that, he's a fun enough character I guess. I mean, as far as talking raccoons go on the big screen, he is an effective character and the fact they did it with CGI made for a lot of great effects, especially that scene when Drax tries to comfort him by stroking his head, how the girls in the audience reacted to his reaction was priceless.
Okay. I won't deny it. This was the best character of the film. Period. Casting Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot was genius. He is as powerful as a superhero should be, but as nuanced as a pet dog is. The effects on this character was not only effective, it was memorable. Having him only being able to say "I am groot" was also cute. But they had to cop out at the very end with him saying "WE ARE groot (good)"! Boo! I want my money back!
I will be nominating Groot for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, and I'm sure I'll start to see dancing Groot toys and plushes all over Kmart in the coming weeks too. He is so lovable and merchandise-able, he will probably be out-shined only by the Minions merchandising next year.
I want to quickly mention these guys before going to the villain side. His aide committing suicide by touching the purple stone like that? She was suffering as a slave? So we're meant to hate the Collector now? I'm confused. They just kind of threw it at us for no reason except to show how powerful the gem is.
Ronan is not only a bad guy, he is also a bad character. Like I mentioned earlier, Ronan as he is portrayed in this film is my least liked character. Not only is his backstory, motivation and personality blander than the cardboard they use to box up generic brand cornflakes, his relationship to every other character is very loosely defined, and disgustingly underdeveloped.
He is a villain character that I hate not because of what his diabolical plot is, but because of how poorly and unengagingly he goes about doing it. All he does in this film is stand around, have his minions bring things to him, and monologue about how he's going to destroy Xander and Thanos so he can, you guessed it, take over the galaxy! I really really prefer villains that are more juicy and less one-note so they can be not only a credible threat, but one that can actually mess around with the protagonist too.
Seriously, I think his head of security guy (Koran?) was more interesting and memorable, though that could be to do having watched the trailer a dozen times. He has just two scenes with Star Lord, and honestly the second one I giggled a bit because he displayed something resembling a sense of humor.
I had to check Wikipedia to get her name. I totally forgot it after the movie, and I'm going to guess most other people did. She wasn't completely uninteresting, as she does harbour some jealousy and dislike towards Gamora, the 'favorite' daughter, and she does actually 'kill' Gamora, which was a genuinely surprising moment in the middle of the film.
Of course they don't actually die but if I didn't know Marvel films intimately, I would be genuinely shocked at that development. It's one thing to hate your half-sister, but it's another to actually have a direct hand in killing them. But like Ronan, not a very well fleshed out character. Dislike.
He is supposedly Star Lord's adoptive father and captain while he grew up. He was basically a more gruffy version of Badger from Firefly. The guy who rides the line between being a ruthless leader and a father figure to his crew and having a semblance of character. But in this film he was just used as a plot device and to do one cool thing with his whistle spear thingy. That's it. I didn't really connect with this character, and am still a bit baffled by why he bothered abducting Quill from Earth all those years back. Did Quill's father ask him to fetch his son? Was Yondu just cruising around the galaxy grabbing kids with talent and fostering them into his pirate army?
I couldn't care less what happened to all of these guys. They're basically all portrayed as a bunch of stuck-up westerners who are oblivious to the real dangers of the universe. Big dumb, incompetent government who only turns around when their chips are truly down. it's as if the audience can relate to that type of government.
Gah I'm rambling too long on this character stuff. I better move along.
So while this film is over-irreverent and has really lame villains, what you see in the trailer was actually what you get. It is a very hearty and funny film. It throws a lot at you within the two hour run time, and most of it does work. You really need to turn off your analytic faculties to get the most out of this film, and when you do, the main characters will grow on you the way a good ensemble cast should in a space/sci-fi/action flick. They work off each other nicely, though by the end their character relationships were a bit too tidy. Sadly you can't blink away from this film because it is all about the moments and brief scenes building on top of each other.
The battles are very well done. The space action is very creative, probably on par with Star Trek. It is mostly easy to follow, and you genuinely don't know how the fight will play out. That sky-net thing that the Nova air-force comes up to block Ronan's spaceship with was quite magnificent. It was the first scene in the movie I could legitimately see them as a united force. Kind of reminded me of the ending from Dragon 2.
And the 70's music playlist. YESSSS. Best movie soundtrack in recent memory. Another!
So overall, Guardians sacrifices being a film with substance, weight and timelessness in exchange for being a popcorn film that will amuse an easy-going audience for an hour and a half, who will largely leave the cinema having gained nothing except a tiny smile, a lot of unanswered questions, and a few new catchphrases to exploit for social media posts.
To paraphrase Star Lord, Guardians is "something good, something bad, a bit of both".
5.0 / 10.0
Yep, this film is one of those you could spend hours listing out tiny flaws and plot holes, as well as bigger things that, when you really think about it, makes no sense or actually undermine the character/story. But I am practicing self-control so I'll only list 10.
Anyway, enough Marvel Universe logic and film nitpicking for one day.
Next movie (and the last one for August): Lucy!